Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Denial of the Herero Genocide (Part 1)

Author: Jonathan Harrison
There is a genuine academic debate about whether the Germans committed a genocide against the Herero or were simply a brutally repressive colonial administration. But there is also a denier school, purely negationist in intent, that uses familiar denier tricks. This series deals with the latter.

This first blog summarizes some of the major parallels between Holocaust denial and the negationist denial of the genocide of the Herero people by the German colonial administration in 1904-05. An excellent article on this subject, Entangled History and Politics: Negotiating the past between Namibia and Germany by Reinhart Kössler, can be downloaded here.

I will focus on Kössler's arguments alongside some comments of my own.

Much of the scholarly discussion of the genocide focuses on General von Trotha’s infamous ‘extermination proclamation’, and its follow-up secret order, which enforced the killing of Herero men and the driving of women and children into the desert by firing over their heads. Kössler argues that this focus distorts the issue, because deniers can cling to the fact that the Kaiser countermanded the order at a later date (ignoring the fact that many Herero were already dead by that point). Kössler notes that the Kaiser's intervention simply led to a longer death for many of the initial survivors:
The figures of casualties among African groups [are] still being contested in some quarters (see below). Yet not only the carnage as such, but also the systematic repression that followed, and above all the wholesale expropriations of most African communities in the region caused sweeping changes. Indeed, in terms of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, not only ‘killing members of the group’ but also ‘deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’ falls under the definition of genocide.

In the Namibian case, this perspective dislodges much of the arguments about body counts and victim numbers fielded against the idea that the German military committed genocide during the last months of 1904. This happened first by sealing off the sandveld to prevent fugitive Ovaherero from returning from the waterless Omaheke steppe; then by warfare against Nama groups during the following years; lastly and in particular, by confining whole ethnic groups, after surrender, to concentration camps under conditions that proved fatal to a majority of inmates, while many were subjected to forced labour (Krüger 1999: 126-137; Zeller 2003; Erichsen 2005). Further, the Native Ordinances of 1907 decreed the wholesale expropriation of all Ovaherero and most Nama groups in the region. Expropriation of land was complemented with a ban on the possession of large stock, a rigorous pass system and compulsory labour. In this way, the indigenes in the Police Zone were stripped of any means of independent existence outside forced wage labour. The ordinances also stipulated restrictions for Africans meeting in the open, and introduced tight ceilings for the numbers living in African settlements. All this, in the case of Ovaherero not least the ban on large stock, impacted not only on the material but also on the symbolic level to foreclose a resumption of communal life, let alone reconstruction of communal institutions. Over and above systematic mass murder, this particularly violent form of detribalisation therefore must be related to the concept of genocide contained in the Convention. By these means, the basis was laid for white settlement on African land now declared crown land and for the consummation of a colonial ‘society of privilege’ (Zimmerer 2001: 94, passim).
This is an important corrective and of course applies to the Holocaust: direct killing by shooting was taking place in a context where death by attrition (hunger, exposure to disease) had already been mandated. Von Trotha's military policy has some similarities to Nazi starvation policy in the USSR, and to Himmler's 1.8.41 order to the SS Kavallerie Regiment 2, stating that:
All Jews must be shot. Drive the female Jews into the swamp.
As with the Turks in the Armenian genocide, the German colonists in Africa were implementing a policy in which exile and extermination were the same. Hitler may have had both these genocides in mind when he predicted that exiled Jews "will be worked over in the harsh climate".

Kössler notes that the failure of deniers to recognize context is defended by an epistemology that appeals to Rankean principles:
On an epistemic level, this consensus is marked by a naïve historical realism, harking back to the day of Leopold von Ranke, claiming to relay the ‘purely factual … “as it actually has taken place (wie es denn wirklich gewesen ist)”’ as one of the self-proclaimed lay historians put it (Schneider-Waterberg 2004).
The distortions that this creates are made clear in one of the most blatant denier texts, a speech written by the South African extreme rightist Claus Nordbruch, for the 2004 IHR conference, which was meant to be hosted by The European American Culture Council of Sacramento but subsequently canceled then rearranged. The speech can be read here.

Nordbruch's discussion of von Trotha's proclamation treads familiar ground. He states that "The versions that are known differ significantly from one another," an obvious well-poisoning ploy. He then claims that the proclamation was simply a psychological deterrent, a piece of rhetoric. Kössler notes that the same claim is made by Koltermann:
He is fixed on seeing the so-called Extermination Order as a ruse in psychological warfare, to bolster up the morale of the demoralised Schutztruppe. One wonders what the representatives of the Rhenish Missionary Society in Germany who were frantically lobbying the government to stop the carnage had to complain about, and indeed, what the intra-governmental debate was concerned with. When Koltermann bemoans the lack of additional sources, therefore, this amounts to a clear immunisation strategy since he disregards sources and facts that have been known at least since the works of Bley and Drechsler.
Nordbruch then goes further along the denial path by claiming that von Trotha's order to fire over the heads of the women was an example of "The humane attitude of the German soldiers". This ignores the contemporaneous publications of the army's General Staff, as Kössler again notes:
In a lavishly styled two-volume publication, the General Staff revelled in the exploits of the German troops, closing with the words that due to General von Trotha’s measures, ‘the waterless Omaheke was to consummate what had been initiated by German arms, the annihilation of the Herero people’ (Kriegsgesch. Abt. 1906: 207). The publication recorded also von Trotha’s proclamation of April 1905, bluntly warning the Nama to surrender or meet the same fate as the Ovaherero (see Kriegsgesch. Abt. 1907: 186). Again, the sense of this strategy was openly debated, not in humanistic but in clearly utilitarian terms. Thus, Paul Rohrbach, the settlement commissioner in German South West Africa and a prominent liberal proponent of colonialism, noted with dismay the ‘unhappy principle of “annihilation”’ inherent in the conduct of the war (Rohrbach 1909: 177) and bemoaned this strategy, ‘indulg(ing) in the luxury first to mete out the punishment of dying from thirst to so many thousands natives, because once their tribal independence and their old property rights disposed of, economic life was in need of them as labour power’ (Rohrbach 1907: 261). Thus, besides regretting the mass killings that had taken place, Rohrbach still took the destruction of communal life as an established, and salubrious, fact. Elsewhere, he noted the chances for settlement in southern Namibia, once a clean slate had been made of the tribal property which the ‘Hottentots’ had ‘forfeited by their present rebellion’ (Rohrbach 1909: 206).
In conclusion, therefore, this form of genocide denial is not simply a denial of facts but also their context. Indeed, it is the denial of the meaning of facts, which can only be understood by context.

1 comment:

Till said...

comment on:
Denial of the Herero Genocide, part 1

Dr Harrison,

Prof. Koessler states:
"He (Koltermann) is fixed on seeing the so-called Extermination Order as a ruse in psychological warfare, to bolster up the morale of the demoralised Schutztruppe".

Please read my original article yourself. If you can find such a strange argumentation in my article, do not hesitate to let me know.

Please do not rely on Prof. Koessler's simplistic view of my article.

His translations are quite erronous and furthermore my name has been written wrongly by Prof. Koessler. The whole Herero-Genocide debate is about advocats of extremist's ideology (history as an instrument for rightist or leftists) versus Historians searching for reliable primary sources and facts.

If authentic diaries of German soldiers having served during the Herero-German war are not taken seriously (see Eckl's work) and are ignored, because they do not fit with "what we want this murderous colonial war to be" the historical value of "Herero Genocide history" becomes ridiculous and worthless.


For further understanding of the whole problem see the relevant article on Eckl's works by Marco Hedler:

Marco Hedler in Jahrbuch für Europäische Überseegeschichte 7/2007 S. 349-354

It is indeed true, that an "immunization strategy" concerning the debate about the Hereo-German war and its terrible cruelty is practicized. Historical sources of the campaign do not have any value for the Genocide-historians unless they do not proove pre-fabricated ideas of colonial slaughtering and the obsession of a connection between German colonialism and Nazi crimes against humanity (Holocaust, Extermination War against Russians).

My comment will probably be needless, because -as I have stated in my article- under such unscientific conditions no debate can take place.

Best regards and good luck for your research

T.P. Koltermann, MA